COVID-19: Bill to allow those under movement control orders to vote in GE passed

South Korea's recent experience has shown that "it is possible to run a safe and smooth election" amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing. (Yahoo News Singapore file photos)
South Korea's recent experience has shown that "it is possible to run a safe and smooth election" amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing. (Yahoo News Singapore file photos)

SINGAPORE — The Singapore parliament passed a Bill on Monday (4 May) to allow voters who are subject to movement control orders, to cast their ballots in the upcoming general election.

Dubbed the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill, it will also allow aspiring election candidates to submit their nomination papers through a representative if they are subject to movement control orders – such as Stay-Home Notices (SHNs) or quarantine orders – or are hospitalised or in ill health.

During the Bill’s second reading on Monday, Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing said the new law would allow voters who are serving their SHNs at designated facilities, usually hotels, to either vote at their place of stay or at “special polling stations”. This means that such voters would cast their ballots outside of their electoral divisions.

“The Bill aims to protect voters, candidates and election officials at the next general election by providing the Elections Department and the Returning Officer with additional powers to make special arrangements to deal with running a general election under the COVID-19 situation,” said Chan.

Replying to a question from Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong, he said that fewer than 1,000 Singaporeans who are of voting age are currently serving quarantine orders.

‘Akin’ to voting overseas

Chan, who is also Minister for Trade and Industry, noted that voting at the special polling stations would be “akin to that at overseas polling stations” but with a “few modifications”.

“Instead of the usual voting hours from 8am to 8pm, the Returning Officer can set the voting hours at the special polling stations differently, as long as they are at least four hours and end by close of polls at all the other polling stations in Singapore, that is, by 8 pm on Polling Day,” he said.

At the special polling stations, each political party, independent candidate or group of independent candidates will only be allowed one polling agent.

Election officials at these stations will also have to call out the electoral division and polling district code of the voter before issuing a ballot paper. This will be done because “each special polling station would have voters from many electoral divisions casting their votes there”, said Chan.

Should there be no dedicated ballot boxes provided for voting in different electoral divisions at these stations, the election officials will be required to sort the ballot papers from the opened ballot boxes according to electoral divisions first before beginning to count the votes.

Chan noted that one of the Bill’s clauses also excuses those who are issued with quarantine orders, serving SHNs at home or are on medical leave due to ARI for not voting.

“Their names will be restored to the electoral registers without penalty,” he said. Chan added that there will be auto-restoration for those on quarantine orders and are serving their SHN at home, “as we have the information for this group”.

For those on medical leave for ARI, they can apply to restore their names to the registers after the election and their names will be restored without a need to pay the $50 penalty, said Chan.

In terms of additional manpower resources required, he added the Elections Department (ELD) will work with the relevant agencies in order to minimise the number of special polling stations to be set up.

“Based on the current numbers, we do not expect more than a few polling stations to be set up in the designated facilities,” said Chan.

Responding to questions raised about the prospect of online voting, he noted that has not been implemented as it is “difficult to prevent impersonation and ensure voting secrecy”.

“Present day (internet protocol) verification systems will require the system to also retain information on the voters choice, which will compromise voting secrecy. In addition, there are system reliability issues and security risks, such as vulnerability to hacking and cyber attacks,” said Chan.

He added that it is also not possible to have polling agents present during online voting.

Provisions for aspiring election candidates

In terms of allowing for aspiring election candidates to file their nomination papers via a representative, Chan noted that these representatives “must have the Power of Attorney” to do so.

“The authorised representative will be able to file objections and make amendments to the nomination papers on the candidate’s behalf during the nomination proceedings,” he said.

Other requirements for successful nomination, such as having the Political Donation Certificate and the required number of subscribers, must still be fulfilled.

Chan added that the Bill does not allow for alternative representation for subscribers; for example, proposers, seconders and assentors.

“As subscribers can be anyone whose name is in the relevant register of electors, aspiring candidates should find a replacement if any of their subscribers is subject to movement control orders... or is having a fever or showing ARI symptoms on the day of nomination,” he said.

Safety precautions

Replying to concerns from several Members of Parliament, Chan said the ELD will put in place the necessary measures to protect candidates, voters and election officials, and would abide by the prevailing advisories issue by the Ministry of Health, for health, and Ministry of Home Affairs, for security.

He added that the ELD is also studying the experiences of countries that have held elections during the pandemic, such as South Korea.

“In the case of South Korea, they implemented precautionary measures, such as temperature screening safe distancing and requiring voters to wear masks and plastic gloves,” said Chan.

“Another useful observation from the South Korea elections is the wide use of collaterals, such as videos and infographics, to assure voters of the precautionary measures being put in place. As a result, they had a record turnout, at the elections,” he added.

Noting that South Korea’s health authorities had recently concluded that there were no local transmission cases arising from the elections, Chan said that this showed that “it is possible to run a safe and smooth election” during the pandemic, provided that the right measures are in place.

Prime Minister will decide on election timing

Chan said that the Bill is “not related to the timing of the general election”.

“It will be for the Prime Minister to consider what is in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans, and make the decision on when to call the next general election,” he added.

He noted that the ELD would share its guidelines for election campaigning, which would take into account prevailing advisories from the Ministry of Health, in due course.

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